Crime at Christmas Series: 12 Days of Winter (No. 1 – A Partridge in a Pear Tree)
(Kindle Editon, London: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2011)
Stuart MacBride’s experiment with e-publication seems at once to be embracing the modern zeitgeist and also harking back to a much older early twentieth century tradition. The internet allows established writers to hawk their wares in bite-sized nuggets, for a token fee, without the need to worry about excessive, nigh on prohibitive, publication costs. In this case MacBride is selling off short stories at 49p a pop. However, there is an overarching design to these story publications, which will inevitably suggest the form of a printed volume, should these e-book editions prove successful. Similar to old Edwardian writers such as M.R. James and Oliver Onions, MacBride has put together a cavalcade of Christmas themed grotesqueries. Whereas the likes of James and Onions foregrounded the ghostly or the weird and left the detective elements deep within the mechanics of their stories, MacBride, as a popular crime writer, foregrounds the criminal elements (thus the Crime at Christmas moniker), whilst simultaneously applying a gloss of his favoured gruesome violence. What the reader is left with are little grim nuggets of MacBride, more like novelistic set pieces than satisfying short stories.
The first of MacBride’s projected twelve short stories, comprising the 12 Days of Winter, involves a 21 stone petty thief and cat burglar called Billy Partridge. Together with a friend called Andy ‘Twitch’ McKay, they are trying to steal a Monet painting from a well-to-do elderly couple in the fictional town of Oldcastle, where much of MacBride’s work is set, supposedly somewhere between Dundee and Aberdeen. The story is particularly slight, being barely sixteen Kindle pages long, giving very little character detail (a failing of MacBride’s novelist background) for the reader to get their teeth into. As well as this the plot isn’t particularly exceptional, revolving, as it does, around nothing more than a failed robbery. MacBride’s robust writing style that is perfectly suited to longer dissections of the grim vicissitudes of a criminal case, here seems rather lacking in the subtlety and precision necessary for the successful execution of a shorter fictional form.
Yet probing beneath the surface of the seemingly utilitarian prose, there are some nicely articulated descriptive passages, like toward the start of the story where the reader is introduced to the awkward physicality of Billy:
his XXL designer jeans smeared with moss and dirt. That’s what he got for trusting Twitch to bring the sodding stepladders. (Locations 13-21)
This manages to suitably conflate the filth marking Partridge’s clothing with the soft curse of ‘sodding’, creating a little visual image of the northern Scottish rural landscape in the process. Later on, when describing the posh area of Oldcastle that the house they’re breaking into is located in, there is a nice demarcation of haves and have-nots in the nouns used:
where Oldcastle’s old money lived. With a fine view of the Bellows and the Kings River, Castle Hill was not for the likes of Fat Billy Partridge and Andy ‘Twitch’ McKay. (Locations 32-43)
MacBride’s writing is always far more nuanced than it is given credit for and despite the narrowness of the narrative arc he manages to work away at a central theme, or concern, that adds depth to proceedings.
MacBride essentially attempts to unfold a little fable about the ‘value’ of possessions. On one side of the divide is Twitch, who seems to be entirely focused on those things of obvious material value. Whereas Billy, although initially participating in the burglary out of fear of what the gangster Dillon might do to him, expresses some inarticulate yearning for aesthetic value and the meaning that such aesthetic value might give. This division is clearly highlighted in the section in which Billy comes across the Monet for the first time:
A pear tree stood in the middle of a canvas as big as a widescreen telly – the leaves a mixture of delicate greens and dark blue, tinged with purple; the sky a riot of vermillion, ultramarine and gold as the sun set. And in the branches a single pear glistened. It was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen in his life. (Locations 101-110)
In this section the grammar of the passage would suggest the narrator is alternating between precise aesthetic detail and bland commercial approximation, either as a direct expression of the central motif of the story, or rather as an attempt at registering Billy’s own understanding of what he gazes upon, as filtered through his GCSE-level appreciation of art. MacBride could well be making a sly dig at the way in which modern culture seems to bring the popular and the particular together with ever greater frequency. This notion is further reinforced later in the narrative when the old gentleman owner of the house, whilst in pursuit of the two burglars, doesn’t scream for the return of his Monet, but rather for the return of his “bloody laptop!” (Locations 152-61). Again this could be read in at least two ways, either the old gentleman couldn’t possibly imagine a couple of ‘small-time hoods’ appreciating the aesthetic or commercial value of a Monet, or, moreover, modern culture is shown, once again, as one in which the values of commercial consumerism dominate aesthetic concerns. Not only is the gangster, Dillon, not deserving of this artwork, but potentially its monied owner also.
The set-up for the narrative is lengthy and not entirely satisfying, as the ‘shock’ denouement comes almost too abruptly for it to resonate. MacBride is careful enough as a writer to nicely pattern the Christmas setting, particularly emphasising, on three separate occasions, the white lights which will ultimately serve as the grim reaper at the story’s climax. Throughout there is an insistence on the commercial aspect of modern Christmas, from Harry Potter gifts to gaudy decorations, that even amongst such economically disparate backgrounds as Billy’s and the Castle Hill residents’ has come to predominate. Although not a short narrative masterpiece, MacBride’s first festive foray at least holds forth the prospect of further darkly subversive little riches to follow. It also offers up a nice comparison between the overly cultured ghost-investigation narratives of James, which were so popular within their own period, and the grittier work preferred of present day English language fiction – even at its more fantastical. James’ work showed a preference for a certain morality and ‘high-cultural’ value, whilst MacBride’s simply demonstrates the less clearly defined moral concerns of the present-day, along with the cultural hotchpotch of ‘high’ and ‘low’ aesthetic concerns that cannot even be perceived as defining of modern culture any longer.